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Opposing player to watch: Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner

Ezekiel Elliott will be greeted back to the NFL by one of the best linebackers in the league on Sunday.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

A decade or two from now when history looks back on the excellent, and at times historic Seattle defenses of the 2010’s, the most prominent names at the forefront of most people’s minds will likely be the defensive backs with the catchy nickname, the “Legion of Boom” as it were. Demonstrative and combustible cornerback Richard Sherman, the rangy and seemingly ubiquitous free safety Earl Thomas, the bone-crunching strong safety Kam Chancellor, and perhaps you could also throw in arguably the team’s best defensive lineman, Michael Bennett, who much like his brother is no stranger to speaking his mind.

At least two, maybe three of those players will end up in the Hall of Fame, so they certainly deserve the recognition that they will most certainly get as time and history moves on from this current era of football. But for many who take a closer look at the success of the Seahawks over the past five years there is another player who could be considered the true lynchpin, and perhaps the best overall player on the unit, and that’s linebacker Bobby Wagner.

Since entering the league in 2011 Wagner has put up over 100 tackles every single season, even when he missed five games in 2014. He also has 15.5 sacks, eight interceptions, and an astounding 29 pass deflections. You can put those numbers right up there with any linebacker in the league, including Luke Kuechly who is generally regarded as the top player at the position in the league.

Wagner can do anything you could possibly want out of a linebacker at the highest level. He is physical in the box against the run with the speed to play sideline to sideline, he has fantastic instincts to read plays and beat offensive lineman to the ball, he is excellent in both man and zone coverage, and he is probably at his best as a blitzer where he plays with excellent timing and physicality. As such he has been rewarded with four straight Pro Bowl nods, as well as First Team All-Pro honors in 2014 and 2016, and there is a strong chance that he earns it again this season.

Not only that, but he is also the only defensive captain remaining after Chancellor’s injury, and similar to Sean Lee he is the glue that binds the entire unit together as far as getting the defense lined up and making sure that the middle of the field stays firm against both the run and pass.

You could see the importance of Wagner when he battled through a hamstring injury to play at significantly less than 100% in a game that many thought he would sit out. With Wagner not his usual self the Seahawks defense got tuned up by Todd Gurley for 152 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, not to mention another 28 yards and a touchdown through the air.

Of course, Gurley is one of the most talented backs in the league, but there is another running back just as talented, if not more so, waiting for them this week in Dallas, who just so happens to be extremely motivated. If Wagner is still struggling through the hamstring injury at less than 100% it should be apparent relatively early in the game, and the Cowboys and Elliott should be able to take advantage of it.

On the other hand, if Wagner is back to his usual self, the Seahawks defense could be back to their normal intimidating ways, at least against the run. After two abysmal defensive performances you have to expect that this very prideful group will be out to prove a point on Sunday, especially with the return of Elliott.

Sure, they’re missing several significant players in the secondary in Sherman and Chancellor, but the front 7 is still mostly intact with Michael Bennett, Frank Clark, Sheldon Richardson, Wagner, and K.J. Wright, who also missed last week’s game against the Rams.

It’s anybody’s guess as to what level Wagner will be at come Sunday, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the game could end up hinging on whether or not he is at or near 100%. The Cowboys will obviously try to establish the run early and look to get back to the formula that has made them so successful over the past two seasons with Elliott’s return, but if the Seahawks are able to stop that early on and force the Cowboys to revert more to the passing game, there could be issues, especially with Tyron Smith seemingly closer to doubtful than questionable. If the Seahawks are going to have any hope of that, they’re going to need Wagner back to his usual self, and not the shell that we saw last week in their blowout against the Rams.

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